Making children's theatre more inclusive

Students from the Rainbow Centre rehearsing for their immersive theatre piece What Dreams May Come, which will run in March 2019 at Peekaboo!, an inclusive arts festival.
Students from the Rainbow Centre rehearsing for their immersive theatre piece What Dreams May Come, which will run in March 2019 at Peekaboo!, an inclusive arts festival.PHOTO: MARVIN TANG/SUPERHERO ME
Baby Space by Sweden-based choreographer Daljia Acin Thelander.
Baby Space by Sweden-based choreographer Daljia Acin Thelander.PHOTO: THE ARTGROUND

SINGAPORE - In March and April, children and their parents who want to watch the Singapore Repertory Theatre's (SRT) Gretel And Hansel can opt for shows with audio description, sign language or a "relaxed performance" with adjustments made to light and sound - all in the name of inclusivity.

From baby theatre to productions that cater to children with disabilities, improving access seems to be a growing theme in children's theatre in Singapore.

"There's definitely been a wave happening over the past year - whether it's a show or a storytelling event, there's a sense of, 'How do you make a show inclusive?'" says Mr Paul Adams, a member of the Access Arts Hub consortium founded last year (2018).

Mr Adams, who is also SRT's learning and engagement manager, adds: "By enabling one person to come, you are enabling the whole family to come for the experience."

All of SRT's The Little Company productions for children this year will have one signed, one relaxed and one audio-described show per run. Esplanade's PLAYtime! series, meanwhile, features sensory-friendly performances, with sensitive lighting and no harsh sounds.

Baby theatre is another trend.

This often takes the form of multi-sensory, immersive productions with music and gentle lighting and small audience sizes. The atmosphere is relaxed - the young ones can cry, breastfeed and crawl around during the show.

Take, for example, Baby Space by Sweden-based choreographer Daljia Acin Thelander and You Can Reach The Sky by theatre-makers Ellison Tan and Myra Loke, which were held at The Artground in Goodman Arts Centre. The children's arts centre, launched in 2017, has also had a mix of other shows, such as a dance work by multidisciplinary group The Kueh Tutus.

TheArtground director Luanne Poh says: "A lot of us have the idea that 'I need a certain cultural capacity to enjoy the arts' or 'My child needs to be quiet'. Here, parents get rid of some of these anxieties."

Others are also aiming to be inclusive - not just in terms of catering to the needs of the audience, but also in the choice of actors.

Peekaboo!, an ongoing inclusive arts festival at special-education school Rainbow Centre, will feature an immersive theatre piece, What Dreams May Come, later this month. The show by theatre-maker Ian Loy and students at the centre will see actors interacting with the audience - be it sharing chiffon cake or a song and dance in a bus.

The festival is co-produced by Superhero Me, an inclusive arts movement aimed at empowering children from less privileged and special-needs communities. Co-founder Jean Loo says this is the first year the festival includes theatre. "The audience is no longer passive. They get to interact with young adults with special needs in a very fun and engaging way."

Artist educator Peggy Ferroa says that while she has seen more sensory-friendly plays, she has not come across any here created with special-needs children in mind.

The former president of the Singapore Drama Educators Association adds: "Why not spend some time coming up with a canon of Singapore theatre for special needs?"

Mr Adams, meanwhile, thinks it would help if practitioners think about access from the get-go.

"If you are going to use sign language, have sign-language performers working in your cast and deaf actors on stage with you doing that. It's finding ways where it (accessibility) is not an addition, it's a part."

There is the issue of financial access too - the cost of tickets.

Tan says that during You Can Reach The Sky's 2017 run, she and Loke noticed that audiences were often "of a certain demographic - such as middle class or expats".

Last October (2018), they ran the event for free at Centre 42 for less-privileged members of the community.

Ms Ferroa suggests that companies could sponsor theatre trips for needy families as part of corporate social responsibility.

She adds: "While it's important to talk about shows for young people with special needs, it's important to remember that they grow up. Some may grow physically, but not cognitively - how can theatre feature in their lives? They can't be deprived from it just because they've reached an age limit."

Catch these shows:

GRETEL AND HANSEL

WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

WHEN: March 13 to April 26; 10am (weekdays), 11am and 2pm (weekends and public holidays).

There will be a signed performance on March 23, 2pm; an audio- described performance on April 7, 2pm; and a relaxed performance on April 14, 2pm

ADMISSION: From $26 (weekdays) and $36 (Saturdays and public holidays) a ticket, excluding booking fee. People with disabilities and their carers get 15 per cent off Access shows

INFO: www.srt.com.sg/show/gretelandhansel (recommended for ages four and older)

PLAYTIME! THE DRAGON'S DENTIST (SENSORY-FRIENDLY)

WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

WHEN: March 15 and 16, 11am and 2pm

ADMISSION: $20, excluding booking fee

INFO: bit.ly/2VM9Jvb (recommended for ages two to six)

MATILDA THE MUSICAL

WHERE: Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue

WHEN: Till March 17; 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 2 and 7.30pm (Saturdays), 1 and 6pm (Sundays)

ADMISSION: From $68, excluding $4 booking fee

INFO: www.marinabaysands.com/ticketing and www.sistic.com.sg

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

WHERE: Rainbow Centre, 501 Margaret Drive

WHEN: March 16, March 23 and 30; 10.45am and 1.15pm

ADMISSION: $15

INFO: peekaboofestival.peatix.com

TUG

WHERE: The Artground (Whitebox), 01-40 Block J, 90 Goodman Road

WHEN: March 24, 2.30pm

ADMISSION: $15 a parent-child pair

INFO: Go to theartground.com.sg/event/tug-feb-mar or e-mail info@theartground.com.sg (a performative play session for toddlers between 18 and 30 months, limited to 15 parent-child pairs)